Hints to Séance-room Investigators

The medium

Hints for Séance-room Investigators

The mediums of the past were often subjected to various painful ordeals as over-zealous investigators sought the truth in séance room and cabinet.  Some researchers stuck entranced mediums with sharp objects to test the depth of a trance. Mediums had their fists filled with flour and their mouths distended with colored water or they might be sewed in bags or tied into various excruciating positions (The Eddy family of Vermont, in particular, seemed to attract knot-tying bondage obsessives.)

Spiritualists, not unnaturally, resented these punitive measures.


Mr. Z. T. Griffen gives, in The Banner of Light, the following sarcastic hints to vivisectors and other investigators who think it their duty to torture mediums:

“When you go to a circle for physical manifestations, take a syringe filled with oil of vitriol to use in case a materialised face should appear at the cabinet opening.

You should also have some Paris-green, moistened, to put on the musical instruments to be used in the dark.

Provide yourself plentifully with torpedo-matches to scatter on the floor of the cabinet, or, better still, a few sharpened tacks, so that when the materialization ‘steps around’ in the cabinet it will get pricked or explode a torpedo.

An air-pistol would be a fine thing to shoot with into the cabinet when a form appears.

Always be sure to provide yourself with a dark lantern, and matches or phosphorus to strike a light suddenly; and also be provided with spring-guns, fish-hooks, small steel-traps, or any other infernal machines you can invent or construct to catch a hand in the dark–either the spirit’s or medium’s hand.

When a medium objects to having his (or her) mouth plastered up, hands tied, handcuffed, or hands and feet spiked to the floor, chair, or cabinet-wall. insist upon having him confined in an iron cage or barrelled up, with the bunghole open, of course.

When you get into a dark circle grab with all your strength and agility at every hand that touches you.

If you hear a voice, especially in the direction of the floor, squirt tobacco-juice right straight in that direction for you may hit the voice, or the materialized head of a spirit or perchance the feet of the medium.”

The Spiritualist 16 August 1878: p. 83

Of course, fraudulent mediums used certain conventions of the séance room to aid their impostures: When spirit Katie King and the medium Florence Cook were photographed together, Cook’s face was completely shrouded in a shawl, not because she was at that moment playing Katie, but because light was said to be death to mediums.  If a sitter made so bold as to flash a light, the medium had only to scream and collapse and the newspapers would report that recovery was doubtful. Hence the single red light or total darkness compulsory for an effective Circle. Touching the medium while she was in her trance would also lead to a catastrophic breakdown and accusations of attempted murder. It was all most convenient for those who found the cover of darkness useful.

One way of keeping the medium honest involved discreetly spreading lampblack or some other coloring agent on the floor to see if human feet had left the cabinet. Other, more pointed methods were also used to see that a medium did not stray.

A retired, elderly journalist, who is stopping at a local hotel, was recounting to some newspaper youngsters his experiences as a reporter, one of which was amusing. He had been assigned to uncover a suspected fraud being perpetrated by an alleged medium. It was the practice of the medium in question to hold a nightly séance, at which ghosts appeared in human though shadowy form.

A stage had been erected at one end of the room, so that the skeptical spectators might not get too close a view of the phantoms. The enterprising young writer, however, contrived to set a trap to catch the imposters, if that was what they proved to be.

Before attending the séance he provided himself with a box of ordinary carpet tacks, which he managed to strew on the floor of the stage. At the appointed hour the lights were extinguished in the room and the first ghost made his appearance. The spectators held their breath as the specter floated onto the platform. He or it had not advanced far when he or it stepped on a tack. Calmly raising its right foot, the ghost extracted the intrusive bit of pointed metal. In its efforts to balance itself on one leg it ran another tack in the left foot. A soft exclamation of surprise followed, and the ghost sat down cautiously and found two more tacks on the chair seat. “Dog-gone it!” the phantom cried, and beat a swift retreat into its mystic cabinet.

Evening Star [Washington DC] 29 June 1928: p. 43

Other sharp methods of investigating the séance room? Check your feet for lampblack before contacting chriswoodyard8 AT gmail.com


Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com.



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